Pence to visit 3 countries near Russia, stress support

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence visits three countries in Russia’s neighborhood beginning Monday to signal support for them and NATO while drawing a line against aggression.

Pence’s trip to Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro is viewed as a follow-up to President Trump’s visit to Europe earlier this month. Trump used stops in Poland and Germany to try to pull off a tricky balancing act of improving ties with Moscow while also= presenting the U.S. as a check against Russia’s moves in the region.

Pence’s mission will be encouraging the countries he visits to continue to ally with the West and resist Russia’s attempts to splinter the NATO alliance.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have previously been dispatched to try to allay the concerns of countries near Russia that the U.S. really will stand behind NATO and support the sovereignty of nonmember former Soviet republics.

The concerns stem from Trump’s suggestion during the campaign that the U.S. might not defend NATO allies and his apparent desire for closer relations with Russia. Trump received criticism on his first European trip for passing up the chance to affirm the NATO mutual defense commitment clause known as Article 5, which frames an attack on one as an attack on all. Trump did affirm U.S. support for Article 5 on his second trip to Europe.

The vice president is expected to deliver a message of support for U.S. trade and investment with the countries while underscoring the U.S. commitment to the security of the three nations, according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters about the trip on the condition that they not be identified by name. Pence also will stress the values of freedom of speech, democracy and religious tolerance.

In Estonia, Pence is expected to highlight bilateral ties with the U.S., particularly on trade, investment and cyber issues. Pence also is expected to thank Estonian officials for their approach to…

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